Pont Neuf

So when I mentioned the art I saw last week in Portland, I didn’t go into detail.

I had a morning to kill before my flight out, so I went to the Portland Art Museum. It has become my custom when I’m traveling for work to try to find the local art museum. I’ve seen art in Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, Fort Worth, Washington D.C., Chicago and Cleveland this way. And now Portland.

I was thinking as I wandered the Portland museum about the reasons this gives me such pleasure. It has a lot to do, I expect, with my childhood. My father is an artist, and art has always been a central part of my life. I was dragged through many a museum as a youngster, which might suggest a possible explanation.

But I think it’s deeper, the fact that I was surrounded by art all of the time – my father’s paintings on the wall, the smell of oil paints in his studio – art as a thing intrinsic rather than a thing separate – water to the fish. To say that my father is my favorite artist would be to state something both subtle and obvious. My whole aesthetic is based on gazing at his work from the earliest days of my life. It’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. My sister’s the same way. Like I said, water to the fish. (One of my earliest memories is lying on my parents’ bed at nap time, staring deeply and intently at a piece of my father’s on the wall, an abstraction of Mesa Verde, I think. That very same painting, or one very much like it, is hanging on the wall of Mom and Dad’s living room. I have tried to con them out of it, but my Golden Son Powers of Persuasion have thus far failed.)

In fact, the whole museum thing didn’t really grow on me until I was a teenager. We went on some studio tours of working modern artists (Big Boys, as I would later hear Lissa describe them), and I began to link up what I was seeing there with what hangs on the walls of museums. It started to come together, my intrinsic understanding with the extrinsic World of Art.

My first great museum art epiphany was a show at the L.A. County Museum of Art called Art and Technology, with this amazing giant moving ice bag by Klaus Oldenberg Claes Oldenburg. I thought it was hilarious! And I remember upstairs on a landing at the L.A. County slipping out again and again to see Ed Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge. At some point after that, I saw a moving Mark Rothko retrospective, panel after panel of variations on his two colored rectangles, an impossible obsession worked again and again through what I now understand to have been a troubled life. I think it was probably that Rothko show that sealed the deal – as if there were really any doubt. I still get goose bumps when I see a Rothko.

The foundation of my marriage is based on art. (Lissa has the catalog of Kienholz’s L.A. County retrospective, something she bought at a used bookstore before we knew one another. She and I had the L.A. art scene in common before we met. She was the one who remembered Oldenberg’s name.) She loves Christo, partly because of his shear audacity and partly because of the slightly loopy nature of his pieces. Which brings us back to Portland, where they had the documentary show of his wrapping of the Pont Neuf – his sketches, some of the cloth and tackle they used, correspondence with the mayor of Paris (Jacque Chirac), and photos of an earnest Christo. One imagines a young Woody Allen playing him in the film. “No, that’s right. I want to wrap the bridge. Yes. In cloth.” Pause. “Well, it’ll be a tan color, not too obtrusive.” I was surely wishing my L could have been there with me – it was a fun show.

They also had a collection of Edward Weston photos – not someone I knew much about, so the show was greatly rewarding. He used to hang with Paul Strand, another early modern American photographer who I only recently became acquainted with during a similar expedition, this one in Boston with sister Lisa.

And they had The Western Motel, a piece by Ed and Nancy Kienholz.